Just days after Riyad Mahrez announced his intentions to leave Leicester City this summer, Arsene Wenger refused to rule out a move for the winger. But would Mahrez be a good addition for Arsenal?
After earning a new two-year contract, despite a frustrating season which saw Arsenal fail to mount a sustained title challenge, Wenger revealed he was targeting a selection of “top, top quality” signings to build on the club’s end-of-season surge and FA Cup win.
Mahrez – the 2015/16 PFA Player of the Year – has certainly shown he is capable of those first-class performances Wenger is after and the Frenchman publicly stated his admiration for the player over the weekend. But would he be a good fit at the Emirates Stadium?
Mahrez was largely disappointing last season, as Leicester struggled to follow up their unlikely Premier League success. After scoring 17 times and producing 11 assists during that title-winning campaign, the Algerian registered just six goals and set up three others in the league last term.
However, despite that drop off, four goals and two assists in nine Champions League appearances were a reminder of his ability in big games and Wenger appears unconcerned about his struggles to consistently affect Premier League games in 2016/17.
“I think he had a huge impact at Leicester when they won the championship, like everybody else,” Wenger told BeIN Sports. “It’s been a different season this year but it doesn’t take anything away from his qualities.”
In fact, over the past two seasons combined, Mahrez’s numbers compare well with those posted by Arsenal’s top men, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. While Sanchez has more goals (37 v 23) and Ozil has more assists (28 v 14), Mahrez matches Sanchez for dribbles completed and isn’t far off the Chile forward in terms of chances created – despite playing for a Leicester side regularly on the back foot this year.
With more of a goal threat than Ozil and the Sanchez-like trickery to unlock a defence and break through the lines, Mahrez offers an interesting attacking option for Wenger.
Fitting into a 3-4-2-1
The key question for the Arsenal boss is where would Mahrez fit into his plans? It will be a consideration for Mahrez, too, given the fact his Leicester team-mate Jamie Vardy snubbed a switch to the Emirates Stadium last summer after being left unconvinced the Gunners’ style would suit his strengths.
That issue centres on what system Wenger expects to use next season. After stepping away from his favoured 4-2-3-1 and seeing his players produce an end-of-season winning streak in a 3-4-2-1 set-up, the Arsenal manager is likely to be keen to stick with his new plan.
After all, the formation has given the backline added protection, freed up flying full-back Hector Bellerin, allowed Aaron Ramsey to shine in a central role, placed Ozil and Sanchez in pockets of space between the lines, and handed fit-again Danny Welbeck licence to stretch the play as the spearhead of the attack.
“What is most important is that the system takes advantage of the quality of the players individually as much as possible,” Wenger told the club’s official website.
After lifting the FA Cup himself and seeing Chelsea and Tottenham both enjoy sustained success in the league with three-man defences, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Wenger should stick with the winning formula.
So, where would Mahrez fit in? The 26-year-old predominantly plays wide right and likes to cut in on his left-foot at Leicester. But with the width in Arsenal’s 3-4-2-1 provided by wing-backs – and Mahrez presumably not planning to do a Victor Moses-style role-swap – it will be Ozil and Sanchez he will be competing with for a starting spot.
Wenger could play Sanchez up front but Welbeck showed his importance in the cup final, with his pace and direct running creating room for Sanchez and Ozil to exploit, and the manager appears to like the idea of the England international and Olivier Giroud battling for that spot.
With the central roles in the system requiring more defensive discipline than Mahrez is associated with, he would seemingly be left as a back-up option from the bench. That would surely be an unattractive prospect for a player who last week described himself as “fiercely ambitious” when announcing his decision to leave Leicester.
Back to 4-2-3-1?
An alternative would be for Wenger to revert to 4-2-3-1 and play Mahrez as part of the three behind Welbeck, alongside Ozil and Sanchez. It’s an enticing idea, which would no doubt see the trio inter-changing positions and causing opposition defences problems across the backline.
Last season all three of them featured among the top 11 players when it came to fashioning clear-cut chances, according to Opta. Together they would possess some serious creative power.
However, for that to happen Wenger would have to find solutions elsewhere on the pitch to cover for the weaknesses which forced him to change formation in the first place.
Explaining his reasons for changing tactics to Sky Sports pundit Thierry Henry in May, Wenger said he felt his team were lacking “security through the middle”. If he were to go back to 4-2-3-1 he would need to bring in additional players to address that problem.
Better central midfield options – especially with Santi Cazorla ruled out until November – who can protect the backline but also instigate attacks, and a centre-back capable of producing, week-in, week-out, the kind of powerful, physical defensive display Pet Mertesacker came up with in the FA Cup final would be required.
Would Mahrez’s arrival benefit the team enough to force another shape change and additional investment to make that work? Or would Wenger be better off finding specialists – as Antonio Conte did last summer with Marcos Alonso at Chelsea, for instance – who can improve his new 3-4-2-1 formation?
It’s a dilemma for the Arsenal manager to ponder – and highlights the difficulty in recruiting “top, top quality” players who fit your system and style.